Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”

Scattered thoughts on transubstantiation

Lately, for reasons that are unclear to me, my thoughts have turned to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and those thoughts have reached a form that is probably blog post-worthy — hence I share them with you now.

One very basic point we learn from Lindbeck is that when we are confronted with a doctrine, we should look to its consequences for behavior rather than focusing solely on the thoughts it prompts in someone’s head. With trinitarian doctrine, for instance, Lindbeck thinks we are dealing not with positive truth claims but with a kind of grammar that guides the way we concretely talk about God in trinitarian terms — i.e., the doctrine is not primarily about what we believe but what we say.

In the case of transubstantiation, the practical payoff is obvious in liturgical terms. If the bread really and irreversibly “becomes” Christ, then we need to take the utmost care of it, be very selective about who gets to participate in it, and carefully preserve any leftovers. In the last resort, it even becomes possible to envision the direct worship of the reserved Eucharistic host.

What is less clear is what we should do with the apparent consequences of the doctrine for the world outside the liturgical space. One implication, for instance, is that if a consecrated host is taken from the church setting and lost, then the real Body of Christ is just kind of sitting around, decomposing, being eaten by rats, etc. The immediate practical response to that implication is, once again, to carefully keep the host inside the liturgical context where it can be properly cared for.

Yet what do we do with the claim that the host still is Christ in the unfortunate event that it falls outside the liturgical circle? In some settings, people have drawn the conclusion that the power of Christ is available for abuse by those outside the church — witches or Jews, for instance. The seemingly narrow claim about the status of a particular wafer of unleavened bread then takes on much broader consequences for the relationship between the church and the world, which is envisioned as one of antagonism. We need to carefully contain the transubstantiated host within the liturgical context because it represents a power that outsiders want to seize for themselves.

Even without that explicitly polemical bent, however, the claim that the host really is Christ even outside the liturgical context represents a broad claim for the liturgy over against the world — it claims that the liturgy is more real than everyday reality. There’s already the seed of that assertion of superiority in the very demand that we recognize the little bit of bread, in defiance of all common sense, as the Real Presence of Christ. The claim that the liturgical act has irreversible consequences that hold in some sense outside the liturgical context then draws out the quasi-totalitarian assertion of liturgical superiority — which helps make sense of a world in which, for example, the Pope was claiming the right to choose kings and divvy up a previously unknown continent between rival powers.

I leave the consequences of this observation for the later Protestant responses to transubstantiation as an exercise for the reader.

When shame works and when it doesn’t 

A while back, I wrote an article on social media as a platform for passing judgment. Now I’m thinking about the same problem from another angle — basically, social media often feels a lot to me like my evangelical church did growing up. There’s the same attempt to micro-manage people’s emotional responses. There are declarations that if you like a certain pop culture product, there must be something deeply wrong with you. The parallels exist even down to the level of fine-grained tropes. For instance, one frequently sees declarations that caring about one thing rather than caring about another thing makes you a bad person. This echoes the structure of one of the most famous lines in contemporary evangelical preaching, coined by Tony Campolo: “A lot of your friends are going to hell, and you don’t give a shit. In fact, you probably care more that I just said the word ‘shit.'”

What unites all these tactics is the overall strategy of shaming. It may seem counterintutive to build community bonds through shaming, but really it’s genius — if the community has an inside track on what’s wrong with you, they can also plausibly claim privileged access to the solution. Wrapping up a certain standard into someone’s deep emotional responses, which sustained shaming does, installs that standard as authoritative in a very deep way.

Continue reading “When shame works and when it doesn’t “

A brief thought on Aulén’s atonement typology

I’ve had occasion to return to the topic of atonement, and specifically Aulén lately, and a thought occurred to me: Aulén’s typology of the three main atonement theories is strikingly similar to the commonplace typology of philosophical ethics.

The “Christus Victor” or “ransom” theory is utilitarian — God gets the job done elegantly, with some ethically questionable actions, to bring about the greatest possible benefit to humanity.

Anselm’s theory (both in reality and in Aulén’s reading, a somewhat rare overlap) would be the deontological theory where the overriding priority is making sure that all the rules are followed to the letter.

Finally, the moral influence theory (which Aulén wrongly attributes to Abelard) is a virtue ethics approach where Jesus’s main contribution is just to be the amazingly excellent person he is.

In short, it’s questionable typologies all the way down.

On the Abortion Trump Card

A lot has been written about evangelical support for Trump, including this excellent piece by Hollis Phelps. I share Phelps’s cynical view of the leadership, but for many everyday evangelicals, the picture is not so stark. They are not political nihilists seeking power and recognition for themselves, at least not primarily, and they do not have elaborate theories of how Trump is a modern-day Cyrus annointed by God to bring the chosen people to the promised land. Rather, for most of them, I imagine that what led them to hold their nose and vote for a man like Trump is the same thing that leads them to vote for Republicans every time: abortion.

That is the moral trump card, and now that it has literally led to Trump, I think it’s past time to ask whether it is really a moral trump card at all, or whether it’s just a convenient excuse to do what feels comfortable and familiar.

I will concede that the fetus is alive and is a member of the human species biologically. I don’t want to debate “when life begins” — it seems indisputable that some kind of biological life is beginning at conception. But does a life begin then? Does the fetus begin to live its life from the moment it is conceived? Is it the kind of being that even has a life yet?

If that question seems abstract, I’ll give an example of the kind of biologically human entity that has a life: a Latina teenager who is allowed to stay in the United States under Obama’s DACA program. It is stated in Trump’s plan for his first 100 days that he will summarily end that program, and that will ruin lives. This Latina teenager will be uprooted — whether immediately or over a grace period — from the life she knows in the US and sent to a place she likely has no memory of. All the hopes and dreams she has for her life here will be radically over, and she will have to start over from scratch. Maybe she will have relatives there to take care of her, and maybe her life will somehow be even better. But the plan does not take any of those contingencies into account — she’s here illegally and needs to be gone.

This policy shift will not directly kill her — though again, the policy doesn’t evince any actual concern for whether she lives or dies once she’s out of the country — but it will definitely uproot and destroy everything she has known as her life. And to support Trump on pro-life grounds is effectively to say that her life, which is actually unfolding, which she is currently experiencing, which she had planned and dreamed and hoped for, is worth less than the purely biological life of someone who hasn’t even been born yet. Is this the moral high ground, or a sick parody of moral deliberation?

Worse: the certainty that her life will be ruined is less important than the outside chance that a future Supreme Court justice will tip the balance in favor of someone who hasn’t been born yet, who has never yet experienced or thought or loved or hoped. Because the irony is that there have been Republican majorities on the Supreme Court more often than not in the time since Roe v. Wade, and yet they somehow never got around to doing what is ostensibly the most important thing.

And why should they? As soon as it’s repealed, suddenly the pro-life movement is no longer a monolithic voting bloc and can start considering other options. They have their locked-in votes from the evangelicals as long as Roe v. Wade stands, and they can get away with anything else they want to do — including nominating a man who is a virtual embodiment of everything that Christians supposedly oppose, and who barely bothers to give lip service to the pro-life position.

It should be a rule of thumb: when someone presents you with an absolute, non-negotiable moral trump card, they are not appealing to your moral sense. They are trying to blind it. They are trying to fool and manipulate you. And evangelicals have let themselves be fooled and manipulated for over 40 years.

Introduction: God and Difference Book Event

Trinitarian theology has lost its way. It has become – as I demonstrate in this book – a way to enjoin practices of sacrifice and submission under the banner of countering the rapaciousness of modern subjectivity.

The problem with Christian theological accounts of the Trinity is not, Tonstad argues, that they have become infected by the fallen or secular logics of gender inequality and hierarchy. The logics of heterosexism and heteronormativity are, in fact, deeply theological, and cannot be unsettled simply by the demand that they be made flexible enough to welcome queer people in. What is necessary instead is a radical remaking of the logic of trinitarian procession, moving away from the heterosexual logic of penetration, according to which relationships move according to the thrusting logics of space-making, activity and receptivity, towards the clitoral logic of surface touch, intensification, and non-sacrificial encounter. Continue reading “Introduction: God and Difference Book Event”

The wrath of God in America

Today we discussed Romans in class, and I described the traditional reading somewhat uncharitably: there’s something wrong with us such that it’s impossible for us to do the right thing, but if we believe in a certain story, then it’s alright. I know I should be more respectful, but no one seemed very disturbed by it. Perhaps I can get away with it because it’s obvious that I know a lot about the Bible and it means something to me (albeit in some kind of weird way). And in fact, that’s what motivates my dismissal of the traditional reading — it renders Romans (and the Bible more broadly) meaningless.

The traditional narrative of salvation, especially in its Protestant inflection, is one that never made much sense to me. I struggled mightily with it, growing up in a particularly evangelical/fundamentalist corner of the Church of the Nazarene. I could never figure out why I as a Gentile ever needed to be released from the burden of the Jewish Law, why “works righteousness” was such an appalling thing, why getting baptized or going to the altar to ask forgiveness wasn’t a “work,” etc., etc. Ultimately I tried to square the circle by joining the Catholic Church, which at least seemed to offer me some objectivity.

That objectivity no longer appeals to me in the same way, but I still can’t get my mind around the Protestant problematic of faith and works and justification. On a practical level, raising children within the Protestant problematic seems like a recipe for neurosis at best (me and all my closest friends) and moral nihilism at worst (all the evangelical Trump supporters, the most prominent of which are precisely the sons of the first wave of leaders).

The reading of Romans I find in Ted Jennings, Neil Elliott, and others presents me with problems that make sense. What do we do when law seems impotent to produce the justice it aims for? How can we maintain integrity while living in a corrupt system that coerces us into complicity with injustice? What would it mean if we really didn’t have to be afraid of death anymore? I find it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, but it at least means something in a way that finagling your immortal soul into heaven simply does not in my view.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that the wrath of God is revealed against the American Empire, as sure as Paul was that the wrath of God was revealed against the Rome of Caligula and Nero. We are living in Romans 1 every time we turn on the TV news. It doesn’t take divine revelation to know that things can’t go on like this forever. But we go along with it, for the most part, because we’re afraid — more and more afraid as we become more and more precarious. All our politics, our collective life has to offer us is fear.

The resurrection may be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that does something, that opens up a space for transformation and hope. A man was subjected to torture and a shameful, painful death, but through some divine power he was able to overcome literally the worst the world could dish out to him — and so we don’t need to be afraid anymore. He is starting a team that we can join so that we don’t have to be afraid. And when we look at the style of thought that something like the resurrection might make possible, then we can look for other things that might fulfill a similar role. Could we arrange a society where we didn’t need to coerce each other with the threat of death, exclusion, starvation, and shame? What would have to happen to make that possible?